Recent Responses

A yellow chair isn't in the set of chairs because it's yellow. Similarly, a beautiful painting isn't in the set of good paintings because it's beautiful. Is my analogy sound?

Almost! You began with "A yellow chair isn't in the set of chairs because it's yellow [but rather because it's a chair]." So I was expecting "A beautiful painting isn't in the set of paintings because it's beautiful [but rather because it's a painting]." Your insertion of "good" spoiled the analogy.

I'm leaning toward the position that there is little or no difference between advocacy and lying. Has any other philosopher discussed this in detail?

Check out Tom Carson's book Lying and Deception (Notre Dame University Press). It's brilliant. I am not sure why you are leaning to equate lying and advocacy. Maybe you have in mind the idea that when persons advocate for a cause or person they might be tempted to do *anything* on behalf of the cause or person. I will admit (and hope that my college administration is not reading this) that my advocacy on behalf of some students has led me to "stretch the truth" a bit (or lie), but this is rare! Check out Carson's book. It is brilliant.

A man has a full grain silo and he refuses to feed the starving village people who the starve to death. I know he’ll be absolved in a court of law but, isn’t it wrong to let people die when you have the means to save them?

Great question. You are right that, very often and in many places through history, there has been some reluctance to compel persons (through law) to save others when they are in a position to do so. This has included not just a reluctance to compel persons (as in your case) to provide food or other resources to aid others who would otherwise die from starvation, but compelling persons to physically aid others who are in peril (rescuing someone who is drowning, for example). Gradually, in the United Sates and elsewhere, there have emerged Good Samaritan Laws that require (and protect from liability) persons to make *some* effort to assist innocent persons in need (e.g. a passing health professional is expected to assist someone who has had a heart attack when no one else is available, and the professional knows basic means of reviving the victim), but these concern emergency situations. Be that as it may, there have been philosophers who prioritize the right to life over the right to property, opening the door to judging that ownership of the full grain silo may be trumped or over-ridden by an obligation to meet the needs of others, especially when this may done without the grain silo owners suffering (true, if there is a re-distribution of property, the owners will lose wealth, but this need not lead to them becoming dispossessed).

Contemporary philosophers who believe that if the full grain silo owners do not prevent others from dying, thy are gravely wrong include Peter Singer and Peter Unger. John Locke thought that the distribution in a just society needs to insure that (as it were) there should be enough to go around so that no persons are abjectly deprived.

By what definition, and extent, and to what purpose do we as humans classify the idea and act of murder as evil? To most people I ask this question seems ludicrous and the answer alarmingly obvious, but I have yet to understand why we identify this occurrence as ‘evil.’ I can understand that the intent of murder and its outcome can result in a way that selfishly benefits the murderer at such a terrible cost, and I can understand that the action of taking someone’s life is just as cruel to the deceased as it is to the people that knew and loved that victim, but it seems hypocritical to me that we as a society generalize the idea of killing as evil when relatively many of us favor capital punishment, strong military, and, at least in fiction, vigilante justice. We send men and women to violent battlefields yet, before they leave, indoctrinate the poor souls into thinking that the very act of murder is evil just by itself. They come back scarred because of this. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ This doctrine assumes that everyone, or at least others, innately both self-preserve and love themselves. To me, this idealized world is instantly refuted the second one realizes that the occurrence of murder exists at all. Otherwise, why act in such a needlessly violent manner? Why do as a society define murder as ‘evil’ and ignore the intent of it when the intent clearly outlines the motive and the scope of its effect?

Well, we think that murder is wrong, and that it's often (usually?) not just wrong but very wrong—wrong enough to count as evil. Robbing someone of their purse is bad; robbing them of the life is worse. What you say you don't understand is why we count murder as (typically? often? almost always?) evil in spite of the fact that we think killing isn't always wrong. You see some sort of hypocrisy here. But why?

After all: not all killing is wrong. The obvious example: killing in self-defense, which I hope we can agree is morally acceptable in a way that murder isn't. Even more so: killing by a police officer to protect the life of an innocent person threatened by an assailant. Capital punishment is a harder case. I think it's wrong, but I don't think people who believe otherwise are therefore morally blind. War is complicated business, but there's a case to be made that going to war is at least sometimes morally acceptable too.

The place where what you're saying seems to miss the mark is here:

it seems hypocritical to me that we as a society generalize the idea of killing as evil when relatively many of us favor capital punishment, strong military, and, at least in fiction, vigilante justice.

and it misses the mark because to think that some but not all killing is wrong is exactly not to generalize the idea of killing as "evil." It's to make distinctions. That's consistent with a rule of thumb that says killing is presumptively wrong and always needs justification. But it seems clear that some killing in some circumstances can be justified. That's true even if killing is usually wrong. It's true even if most (but not all) killing is positively evil.

I'd add one more thing: talking about "we as a society" is usually not helpful. "Society" isn't one thing. Different people within a single society hold different views, and hold them with different levels of conviction. Rather than worrying about what "we as a society" think or say, better to analyze the views themselves. And the word "hypocritical" applies to societies, if at all, only as a not-very-helpful extension of its primary use: as a way of describing individual people who are guilty of a certain sort of moral weaselry.

What is it to know what a thing is? Suppose I can identify a laurel tree by its smell, but not by the shape and colour of its leaves. Or the other way around. Do I know what a laurel tree is in each of these cases? Or suppose I am a scientist and can identify it by analysing its genome, but not by its smell nor by the shape and colour of the leaves... Suppose I know only or, on the contrary, do not know the uses people give to laurel leaves. How many properties of laurel must I know so that I can know what laurel is? I think I must know something, otherwise I wouldn't even know what the word"laurel" means. But what? It can't be just one small thing: I wouldn't say that I know what laurel is if I can identify it only by its smell.

Great question(s). I suggest that "the bottom line" philosophically in such matters involves whether your concept of a "laurel" enables you to identify the plant as distinct from other plants and things in general (including minerals, animals, computers,...). Another criterion that philosophers use involves identifying what features are necessary or sufficient for a thing to be what it is. Such an analysis will probably take shape in terms of differentiating a thing's essential characteristics from its accidental features. So, I assume that an essential feature of being laurel would be being a plant, but it would only be an accidental feature that the plant was used in ceremonies to make a kind of crown that was conferred on someone quite distinguished (a successful poet, say). Because things like laurels will have almost indefinitely many features (the way it tastes, the sound it makes or does not make, when harvested.....), we tend to prioritize what features are vital depending on the context. So, for a biologist the genome may be vital, but not vital for crowning a poet. I hope this is at least partly helpful!

Thanks for great question(s)!

Defenders of animals' rights argue that other people are "speciesists" (like some people are racists). I would like to ask if speciesism is always wrong. Suppose healthy adult people have some features that make them important (say, they can speak and they can reason in complicated ways) and that no non-human animals have. Suppose those features give adult healthy humans some rights. Is it necessarily wrong to assign those rights also to human babies and mentally handicapped humans, but not to non-human animals? We would recognize those rights in babies and the mentally impaired because we like them more than we like other animals (as a matter of fact, most of us are speciesists), but animals couldn't complain about that, could they? Anyway, they wouldn't be offended. I also think this argument would not make racism acceptable.

I was with you about 2/3 of the way through what you wrote. Yes: it might be that some features humans have give them rights beyond those of non-human animals. And yes, in light of that, it might be acceptable to grant the relevant rights to people who don't have the relevant characteristics. (Notice that I've said "might," because the actual arguments will matter.) Your question is whether it could be okay to draw the line at humans and not extend the same rights to non-human animals. Once again, I can see ways of arguing for that view that aren't just obviously crazy, whether or not the arguments are good enough all things considered.

But I found myself puzzled by what comes next. You suggest that we'd draw this distinction because we like babies and mentally handicapped people better than we like, say, puppies and beef cows. Is that a speculation about what our actual motivations? I hope that's all it is, because it certainly doesn't seem like a moral justification. (I'm also pretty sure, based on the number of cat pictures I've seen on the internet, that this speculation about what people like might not be entirely on target...)

Then you remind us that the animals couldn't complain. This is true, of course. Animals also couldn't complain if we tortured them—not, at least, if by "complain" you mean offer an articulate objection. They could certainly howl in pain, though, and that seems at least as relevant. And yes: the animals couldn't be offended (at least, not as far as we know), but whether I'm treating a creature wrongly and whether it's offended are two quite different questions. After all, someone who has their throat slit before they notice what's happening won't be offended, being dead and all that. But what does that have to do with anything?

Finally, you assure us that, far as you can see, accepting this argument wouldn't call for accepting racism. I'm afraid I don't see why. If I'm allowed to treat babies differently from elephants just because I like babies better, then what's the objection to someone who wants to treat people of race X better than people of race Y because he likes people of race X better? It's true, of course, that people of race Y could complain and be offended. But as we've already pointed out, that's not exactly a compelling distinction.

You say we're all speciesist, and you may well be right. I'm not going to deny that I'm guilty of that charge. Still, it seems to me that this is something we should worry about, and sorting through the arguments will be a little harder than the drift of your post suggests.

But then maybe, I'm misreading you. I'm not always good at spotting satire.

Panpsychism seems to posit that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter. If so, it would then need to be able to explain how discrete chunks of matter, presumably with their own consciousness, combine to create the unified sense of conscious experience that humans enjoy. Would it not make more sense, (or are their philosophers who make this point), to think that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality and that the property that matter has is the ability to interface with consciousness as opposed to having its own? Such that, the more complex a system is the more access it has to consciousnesses, (and vice versa?). Roughly speaking, does it make more sense and fit with our intuitions as well as our empirical evidence to think of matter has being able to receive consciousness rather than create it? I call this the "capacity answer" to "combination problem". Increased complexity allows for greater access to/processing of the raw conscious "stuff" that is then colored by our interaction with the physical world.

I think that the reason your question has been left unanswered for a while is that it's not clear what you're asking. You ask if it might be that "consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality and that the property that matter has is the ability to interface with consciousness as opposed to having its own." I'll confess that I'm genuinely unsure what that means.

One problem is that consciousness isn't a thing. I'm conscious of the computer screen in front of me as I write my answer. You're conscious of the screen on your computer (or phone or tablet...) as you read what I wrote. To talk of consciousness is a way of talking about being conscious. There's no clear meaning to attach to the idea of some reservoir of "consciousness" out there, apart from being conscious of one thing or another.

I do think you're right about this: saying that "consciousness is a fundamental property of matter" doesn't give us insight into how our experience is unified. I'm just not seeing how we get any further by positing a distinct, fundamental non-material "consciousness" that matter somehow taps into. And I have even less idea how we'd be able to figure out if this were really true.

I talked with a 78 y.o. woman whose ears were pierced (for earrings) when she was 1 y.o. or so. I asked her if she didn't think her parents were wrong in having her ears pierced, because they caused her intense pain without need and without her consent. She looked very surprised with my question and told me that her parents did the right thing, since she would always have wanted to use earrings AND (this is the point) it would have been much WORSE if she would have her ears pierced when she was 7 or 12. She told me that she doesn't remember the pain inflicted on her when she was 1 year old, and so that pain "was nothing", it was "worth nothing" (the conversation was not in English....). I wonder if this makes sense. Is pain that one will absolutely forget within an hour much less important than pain that we will remember?

That's what we'd generally expect. Pain you remember can have consequences beyond the painful experience itself. It may give you unpleasant memories. It may intrude on your thoughts unbidden. It may make you phobic, avoidant, fearful. In extreme cases it may leave you with PTSD.

I'm old enough to have had more than one routine colonoscopy. I don't know for sure what drug they used, but if it was Midazolam, then there's a good chance that I've experienced pain that I have no memory of whatsoever.* If so, I think your acquaintance's description gets it right: the pain was "worth nothing." If my doctor told me that I actually was given Midazolam and asked me whether I'd be willing to have the same medication the next time I'm due for the procedure, I'd say yes.

Pain as such isn't as important as a crude version of utilitarianism might lead you to think. What matters much more is how it fits in with the rest of your life.

* Actually, it's virtually certain that I've experienced pain I don't remember. I have no memories at all of anything that happened to me when I was an infant. As anyone who's been around babies will agree, it's a safe bet that at some times when I was that young, I was in a lot of pain. Far as I know, it didn't leave any psychic scars and I don't think it carries any weight in my biography.

Hello! My question is simple. How do philosophy of time and the philosophy of history distinguish themselves from one another?

The answer is equally simple. The philosophy of history is about actual human history, and things such as what constitutes a proper historical explanation, whether there are historical laws, the role of the individual in determining historical events, and so on. The philosophy of time deals with much more theoretical questions, not about human history at all, but about time itself. Does time pass, or is that an illusion? Is "the myth of passage" really a myth? ("The Myth of Passage" is the name of a well-known article by the Harvard philosopher D.C. Williams. Does time always flow forward, if it flows at all? Can it flow backwards? If not, why not? If it flows, how fast does it flow, and though what? Since speed = distance/time, the speed of time would be the temporal distance covered by time, such as a minute, divided by time, e.g. per minute; but this makes no sense at all. Etc. Etc. There is occasionally a little overlap between the two subjects. For example, the first event is important both in cosmic history and because it tells us something theoretically important about time, namely that it had a beginning, or that there was a time when time began.

How can we deal with decision making under ignorance of probabilities when all possible negative or positive outcomes of one alternative are equal to that of the other(s)? I put forth the following example: Let's say that I can choose either to deal with a current personal security matter, which might otherwise bring about death, or to deal with a health issue that, if left untreated, might have the same consequence; and let's suppose that I have no access to the probability of mortality from any problem, nor to the probability of mortality provided that I assess either of them. As I see it, normative accounts for these instances, such as the maximin, minimax, maximax, and Laplace criteria would hold the alternatives to be equally good, as they have the same expected utility. But I am sincerely dissatisfied with the idea of making choices at random, so I want to know what you think. I also see the possibility of the decision making process being tainted by an "anything goes" type of mentality, as coming from the notion that most often than not, we ultimately don't know what the consequences of our actions can be, which, under ignorance, becomes even a bigger concern. I would also like to know this: How would Decision Theory (or even consequentialism) deal with the notion that we often can't ultimately know what the outcomes of any given choice can be, and that thismay make the decision making process be tainted with an "anything goes" mentality?

If I understand your question correctly, it's this: in a case where the available considerations don't favor one alternative over another, how can we choose rationally what to do, where "rational" entails that anyone in the same situation (same preferences, values, information, probabilities or lack thereof...) would choose the same way?

Unless I'm missing something, you can't choose rationally in this case in that sense. The way you've set the situation up leaves no room for singling out one alternative.

One possibility is to add "do nothing" to the list of alternatives. If that's better, or likely better than each of the alternatives, do nothing. But if doing nothing is worse overall, then the obvious question is: what's wrong with picking randomly? After all, picking randomly only in cases where you need to make a choice and there's no principled way to do it isn't the same as thinking that anything goes in any circumstance.

That should be clear in general. But an artificial example may help. Suppose I'm given a blind choice between two boxes. One, I know, has $1000 in it. The other has $10, but I don't know which box is which. By calling this a blind choice, I mean that I have no information at all to guide which box I pick. I would be foolish not to choose. And by choosing randomly I'm not adopting what you call an "anything goes" point of view. I'm making the rational choice to end up with something rather than nothing, but making an arational choice between two ways of getting something. It's arational because I don't appeal to any principles or reasons for picking the box I pick. But it's not irrational; in the circumstances, the choice to pick arationally is the rational choice.